‘Ahora o Nunca’: Dual-National Players Center in U.S.-Mexico Fútbol Rivalry

Oct 27, 2021
2:37 PM

United States’ Ricardo Pepi celebrates with teammates after scoring his second goal against Jamaica during a FIFA World Cup qualifying soccer match, Thursday, Oct. 7, 2021, in Austin, Texas. (AP Photo/Eric Gay)

On August 12, 2021, The Players’ Tribune published an autobiographical feature penned by David Ochoa. Ochoa, 20, is Mexican American born and raised in Oxnard, California, and the starting goalkeeper for Real Salt Lake in the U.S.-based Major League Soccer.

Like millions of Latinos in the United States, he struggles with identity —he even called it depression. Growing up, he represented Team USA nationally, playing as a goalkeeper for several youth squads until choosing to play on Mexico’s national team this past summer after being pursued by both squads.

“In the U.S. I was ‘the Mexican,’ ” he wrote in his Players’ Tribune piece, regarding his internal identity struggle. “In Mexico, I was ‘the Gringo.’ ”

Hérculez Gómez, 39, was an early example of a Mexican-American fútbol star who struggled similarly throughout his career, which included success in both MLS and Mexico’s Liga MX until his 2017 retirement. Gómez lives in Los Angeles and played with Team USA from 2007 to 2013. Because Mexico didn’t relentlessly recruit him, he couldn’t imagine confronting a decision on who to play for today, as he explained in a Zoom interview with Latino Rebels last week.

“I went to a (Los Angeles) Dodgers game recently,” said the current ESPN fútbol analyst. “The majority of the fans are Latino. And, sure, it’s a baseball game; there’s going to be a huge Latino influence. But I see the same thing at Rams games, Chargers games, Raiders games, Lakers games, Clippers games, the Galaxy, insert whatever team you want. It goes to show you how the American [public] is changing. All those people have dual cultures: Mexican American, Honduran American, Brazilian American, Colombian American, whatever you want. They grow up living the same way I did, appreciating two different backgrounds, cultures, customs, and not only appreciating it, but growing a loving affinity for it.

“So all a sudden imagine dropping one in the middle of this bidding war, this tug of war, and all the emotions that could come out of that, good and bad. That’s what these kids are going through. I didn’t have to go through that, and that’s where I feel for them.”

Gómez didn’t have quite the same battle Ochoa did, but in the modern rise of Mexican-American dual nationals, Ochoa is far from alone. Several players have made their commitments, including El Paso, Texas native Ricardo Pepi, 18, who pledged his allegiance to the United States and recently became the youngest USMNT player to score in consecutive World Cup qualifiers since 1988 and the second youngest to score multiple goals in a single qualifying match.

“It was a difficult decision,” the striker told the Spanish-language sports channel TUDN of his decision to stay with the United States despite being recruited by Mexico. “Truth is, I had it in my mind for like three or four years. I had to talk a lot with my family, with my agent, with the people I trust. It was a decision made with the heart.”

Midfielder Efraín Álvarez, 19, was also born and raised in the United States. Álvarez, whose parents came from Mexico, played on both Mexican and American youth teams prior to committing to Mexico over the summer, appearing in the CONCACAF Gold Cup with the senior squad.

Julián Araujo, 20, came up through the American ranks beginning in 2016, but also submitted a one-time switch to represent Mexico going forward during the summer. Beforehand, Araujo, who also comes from a Mexican family, was at the center of a two-year battle for his commitment between the two nations.

“U.S. Soccer has given me so many opportunities, and I’ll forever be grateful for that,” he recently told Felipe Cardenas at The Athletic. “But at the end of the day, my heart is with Mexico.”

Cardenas tells Latino Rebels that part of why he recently featured Araujo was that, like Gómez, he sympathizes with what these dual-national players are enduring. Cardenas was born in Colombia but raised in the United States, joking that in his youth he might’ve been the only Felipe in the state of Indiana.

“I connected with a lot of what David Ochoa and Julián Araujo said because sometimes you do get stuck in between two cultures,” said Cardenas, who once dreamed of playing on the Colombian national team over the U.S. in his fútbol-playing days. “Sometimes you don’t know where really you stand as a dual-national, bi-cultural Latino in the U.S. Even to this day, as an adult, as a dad, as a journalist, as a husband, that still goes on.

“I think these young players deal with it at another level,” he added. “They’re on social media. They’re being harassed. I think you take all that into consideration and then imagine having to decide which country you’re going to choose and which people you’re going to let down.”

The uniqueness here is that choosing between the USA and Mexico also means you’re picking between two rival fútbol nations persistently striving for CONCACAF prominence. The Mexican national team is more decorated, and the rivalry even has its own Wikipedia page.

Mexico has appeared in 16 World Cups to Team USA’s 10. They’ve reached two World Cup quarterfinals to Team USA’s one. They’ve won eight Gold Cups to Team USA’s seven. They won an Olympic gold medal in 2012, and today they rank ninth in the world while Team USA is ranked 13th.

However, Team USA has more recently reached a World Cup quarterfinal, having been one of the final eight teams after shutting out Mexico in the 2002 Round of 16, 2-0. Team USA won this year’s Gold Cup by defeating Mexico 1-0. And by keeping players like Pepi from jumping to Mexico’s national team, it makes the battleground for dual-national players one not only involving scheme fit, but also pride.

“There’s an ego battle happening, too,” Cardenas insists. “Mexico doesn’t want the U.S. to play with a team of Mexican Americans. I really think they’re like, ‘We don’t wanna lose to them with a bunch of players who could’ve played for us.’ That’s where some of the recruitment goes in as well. Does Mexico really need to come to the U.S. and find these jewels and diamonds in the rough? You could argue no because they have so much talent in their country already. But they see how the U.S. is getting stronger, they see how the U.S. has a plan about dominating the region and being a world power, and part of that plan is with Latino players. I don’t think Mexico wants to see that happen.”

And the pride portion of this is not new, Gómez says. As someone who excelled in the top pro leagues of both countries, he’s experienced what these players may deal with.

“I remember what it was like for me playing in Mexico where, when I first got there, it was a little standoffish,” he said. “On the field, sometimes, they don’t pass you the ball. Why? You’re an outsider coming in, and you’re taking food off someone else’s plate. That’s food for their family. If you do well, they don’t do well. You have to prove yourself. You’re the gringo, but once you prove yourself, you’re their gringo.”

In one instance, Gómez was playing for Santos Laguna in Liga MX. The team had qualified for the CONCACAF Champions League and reached the semifinals, a two-game home and away series against MLS club Toronto F.C. The first game, played in March of 2012, ended in a brawl following a 1-1 tie. The second game, which was played in August, was sparked by an impromptu pep talk from an unlikely and usually soft-spoken source: then-Santos Laguna assistant manager Héctor Adomaitis.

¡Muchachos! ¡Muchachos!” Gómez mimicked. “He started going, ‘Estos hijos de puta —they have everything! They have American football! They have basketball! They have baseball! They have hockey! But not this! This is ours! This is ours!’ It was like a scene outta 300. And everybody’s like running out of the tunnel, and I’m sitting there, the last one behind everyone, and I’m like, ‘What the fuck, guys? It’s Canada!’ ” Gómez said, smiling.

“But it goes to the mindset of where this rivalry between the U.S. and Mexico is. I said six or seven years ago that the Mexican-American player will be the most important player in North America. And here we are with these bidding wars.”

Gómez highlighted that even player traits are intermingling now. Mexican fútbol stars are traditionally very technical on the ball and advanced dribblers with natural ability and vision. American fútbol players are typically bigger, stronger, more athletic, and more disciplined. Now we’re seeing more combinations of the two being spawned across and representing both countries.

Where this all leads is well beyond the upcoming November 12 World Cup qualifying match between Mexico and the USMNT, the No. 1 and No. 2 CONCACAF teams in the World Cup qualifiers. It even transcends next year’s World Cup in Qatar.

It’s about the 2026 World Cup that will be held across Mexico, the United States, and Canada.

“This is the best opportunity. Either one’s gonna have to actually win a World Cup,” Gómez said. “One very green program that’s expected to be at its peak in 2026 in the U.S. men’s national team. And a historically strong program in Mexico that has massive support here in North America. There is no fanbase like the Mexican national team’s. It’s not that they’ll just come out in the green jerseys. They’ll come out in their white jerseys, they’ll come out in their black jerseys, they’ll come out in their Jorge Campos jerseys, they’ll come out as charros, or El Santo, or El Chavo, or an Aztec warrior.

“And then you have the U.S. men’s national team, players who will be reaching their peak around that time. It’s an ahora o nunca moment. And I also think they understand the moneymaker this will be. I don’t have to tell you the most sought-after clientele is the young Latino. Now you’re selling to the young Latino direct to consumer. Here you are.”

Battles for players will be an essential component of the next five years, and it’s also why fútbol in North America could embark on a historic run —including the emergence of Canada who is currently third among CONCACAF teams in the World Cup qualifiers. Surviving the qualifiers would give Team Canada their first World Cup appearance since their last and only one in 1986. For Team USA, in particular, Cardenas asks, what if the face of their program isn’t a Landon Donovan or even a Tim Howard type.

What if it’s Ricardo Pepi?


“Someone like Ricardo Pepi being the face of American soccer would change everything,” Cardenas suggests. “It would take the general public in the U.S. to be like, ‘Oh, okay, this is who we are.” I tweeted that but I mean it. That’s where this is headed.

“And when that happens, I think the U.S. will turn a corner as far as who they are, where they’re going, and who they actively identify with.”


Bryan Fonseca is an award-winning content creator and sports journalist. He is also the author of Hidalgo Heights, and the founder, host and executive producer of the Ain’t Hard To Tell Podcast and Side Hustle. Twitter: @BryanFonsecaNY